I have a 5-year-old black lab who has a nasty habit of eating other dogs' feces if she's not carefully watched. She's in good health, eats organic dry food, and is exercised regularly. We've tried everything to break this habit — even our vet is at a loss. Any ideas?
Ingesting feces is known as coprophagia. It is considered normal behavior during certain life stages, e.g. it's normal for nursing mothers to eat their own puppies' feces and for a young puppy to sometimes eat it. We're not sure why healthy adult dogs that are eating high-quality food eat their own feces. It's possible that some dogs like it so much or are never discouraged from doing it that it becomes a lifelong habit and in some cases a truly compulsive behavior.
You did the right thing by taking her to your vet to rule out a possible medical reason. We can now assume this is a behavior problem. The short answer on how to break this habit: Don't let her do it. Here are some tips:
Supervise your dog closely when she has access to other dogs' feces. This means you should keep her on a leash in areas where other dogs eliminate. If she lives with other dogs and/or other dogs visit, pick up poop immediately so she doesn't have the opportunity to practice the behavior.
Build a solid obedience foundation that includes a reliable recall. When your dog is off-leash you can call her away from the feces before she gets to it. Also teach your dog the "leave it" cue — defined as either do not touch, ignore, or move away from that object — and the "drop it" cue for times you don't catch your dog in advance of her eating the feces.
Use a loud sound or device to startle your dog when she gets close to the feces. If your dog is sound sensitive a simple loud clap may work. If not you can use a shake can or air horn. If you don't make progress within a few weeks, consult a professional trainer.
This weeks' expert is Certified Professional Trainer/Behavior Consultant Pauline Houliaras, president of B-More Dog. Submit your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.